Modus

Daily grind: do we really want to go back to the office?

As pandemic-related work and travel restrictions around the world begin to ease, we asked four surveyors how the industry will cope with being back in the office

Author: Noella Pio Kivlehan

18 July 2021

Orange toned photo of commuters on escalator
In April, Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon sent out a no-punches-pulled memo telling his New York City staff, including more than 5,400 interns, new hires, and associates, they should be prepared to return to the Manhattan offices by 14 June. This followed Solomon’s declaration to a virtual Credit Suisse conference in February that remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic was an “aberration” and it would not become the “new normal.”

While this approach is direct, it does coincide with a consensus agreeing the need, and want, for employees to get back to the office.

In the UK, on 19 July, many COVID-19 restrictions, including social distancing, are due to be lifted. Results in the RICS UK Facilities Management Survey in February 2021 showed up to 80% of employees will head back into the office once the pandemic is in retreat. It is anticipated most will return part-time. In May, a BBC survey of the UK’s top 50 firms, which employ 1.1m people, showed 43 of those businesses will adopt a hybrid model of work.

With life returning to ‘normal’, the question is how those in the surveying industry will cope with commuting back to work. And can we really function with a hybrid of home/office working, given the growing acceptance of the need for office culture, knowledge transfer and client management?

Speaking to surveyors across several continents gives a global snapshot of how companies coped during the pandemic and what employees feel about returning full-time to the office.

Canada

Alexandra Faciu MRICS is an executive experienced in real estate asset management, transformation, and investment.

What is the situation in Canada?

Since March 2020, there have been government-imposed restrictions around working from the office. Commuting is one of the main concerns when returning to work. Last summer, before vaccines, office workers were not comfortable commuting, especially for longer than 15 minutes. Employees requested access to parking at the cost of the employer and if [this happened] then they were happy to come back in an office setting.

Can people function properly with hybrid working?

If a manager shows sufficient leadership and builds relationships based on trust with their team, those teams will be motivated to do a good job, no matter where they are. Companies that adopt this hybrid work model rapidly and view it as an opportunity will reap many long-term benefits.

Are there concerns about re-adapting to the workplace?

There are always fears for new beginnings and new things. But competition for talent is still very much a reality, so companies unwilling to reinvent their ‘routines’ will most likely put their long-term sustainability in jeopardy, which eventually could put them out of business.

Headshot of Haashiem Tayob

Alexandra Faciu MRICS

“Companies that adopt this hybrid work model will reap many long-term benefits.”
Back to the office stats
Spain

Oscar Fernandez Serrano MRICS is head of business project development services at Cushman & Wakefield in Madrid, Spain.

What is the situation in Spain?

The vaccine rollout has accelerated rapidly in recent weeks with infection rates falling. Pre-pandemic habits and customs will gradually return, with the goal being to get back to normality during the summer.

How will those in the surveying industry cope with commuting back to work?

This lengthy period under the shadow of the pandemic has demonstrated that employees want and need the office environment.

Future trends have escalated within a matter of months: greater social collaboration, new priorities, increased respect for the environment and the optimal use of resources - these will all have an effect on the way we work, travel, and relate to each other.

Office buildings must also respond to trends as they face competition from other potential workspaces like hotels, collaborative spaces and restaurants.

What are the views of younger people and new recruits?

New employees have been the most affected, as they are not benefitting from the support of colleagues, the corporate culture or the feeling of being part of a new group. But, once a gradual return to the office became possible, these were the ones clamouring to get back.

It is not surprising, as they need to absorb everything they have missed and interact more directly with their managers during the first weeks. We need that look of approval, that smile or, perhaps, a hug.

Headshot of Haashiem Tayob

Oscar Fernandez Serrano MRICS

“Office buildings must respond to trends as they face competition from other potential workspaces.”
Back to the office stats
Saudi Arabia

Haashiem Tayob MRICS has spent the best part of a decade working in Saudi Arabia and is a non-executive board member of RICS.

What is the situation in Saudi Arabia?

There was a gradual return to offices and then very tight restrictions placed on social distancing and capacity of retail spaces, with fines for offices that breached COVID protocols. But the country coped and the Saudi government handled it well, enforcing the regulations strictly.

With life returning to ‘normal’, how will those in the surveying industry cope with commuting to work once more?

There isn’t a rush back into the office, except for when critical activities demand it. Naturally, for people working in these critical services, employers need them to work from the office or to be physically on-site. I believe we will see a lot of hybrid working.

What about younger people, new recruits, who wouldn’t have spent much time in the office over the last 15 months?

My generation – the millennials – have been quite vocal about priorities and work-life balance. This is becoming louder and [we] see hybrid systems as giving us more power over our lives and choices. On the other side, you need to ask yourself how can I build and strengthen relationships with my senior managers to gain the soft skills such as conduct, dress, psyche, negotiations, and not least of course technical understanding?

Is there a sense employees are excited to be going back?

The excitement of getting back was huge. Having a social life has become more challenging and working from home has certainly impacted the work-life balance for many. What has become clear is that downtime is now very important ­– for many working from home or from the office 100% is not the solution any more, which is why many now support the idea of hybrid working.

Headshot of Haashiem Tayob

Haashiem Tayob MRICS

“We see hybrid systems as giving us more power over our lives and choices.”
Back to the office stats
UK

Andrew O’Donnell is UK real estate and workplace director at JLL.

How are staff coping with commuting back to work?

People have begun to enjoy the commute as they lost that downtime when working from home. It provides time to switch off. Also, we are seeing a shift in approaches to commuting with many opting to walk or use bikes, either from home or from a train station to the office.

Can people function properly with hybrid working?

Yes, but flexibility needs to be balanced with client commitments and a willingness for forward planning. Otherwise we will see empty offices on Monday and Friday and overloaded offices mid-week where it will be difficult to collaborate and meet effectively. There is a need to shift mindsets around certain activities, for example planning ahead to write reports and complete focused work at home while maximising face-to-face interaction when in the office.

How will working from home affect workplace culture, knowledge transfer and client management?

A full work from home mentality will not work. It will damage teams’ ability to share business knowledge and affect the sense of community within a company. All things must act in balance with the need for people to interact fact-to-face regularly and to have chance encounters.

What are the views of younger people and new recruits?

Currently it is the more senior people who are back in the office, by the nature of their role. But our most recent people survey tells us that almost 80% of our younger staff want time in the office. This is driven by their social nature, the lack of space to work at home and the need to learn from colleagues and network with them. They want to feel part of the culture and organisation, which is something you simply can’t achieve remotely.

 

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Headshot of Haashiem Tayob

Andrew O'Donnell

“New recruits want to feel part of the culture and organisation.”
Work reboot

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Illustration of RICS President Kath Fontana

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